Book excerpt

Dead Last

Thorn Mysteries

James W. Hall

St. Martin's Press

ONE
 

IT WAS SATURDAY, MID-JULY, AND Thorn and Rusty Stabler were drifting through Trout Creek, a half hour west of Key Largo by boat. On the fringes of the Everglades, this northern corner of the Florida Bay was dotted with tiny islands and flats that rose into view at low tide to become vast sandbars where egrets and herons feasted on mollusks and stranded pinfish and shrimp.
Narrow unmarked channels snaked across the grassy bottom and cut close to the mangrove islands, making it a tricky place to navigate even in a shallow draft skiff like theirs. All across this region the turtle grass was scarred with prop trails from novice boaters who’d strayed into the shallows and plowed deep grooves at high speed, leaving their idiotic signatures in the sea floor for decades to come.
The Bogies, Stump Pass, Nest Key, Alligator Bay, Trout Cove, Little Madeira, Long Sound, Joe Bay, Tern, and Eagle keys. The islands and sandbars, bays and coves of this remote area were as familiar to the two of them as the slopes, curves, and soft undulations of a lover’s body.
Unanchored, they rode the tide, their live shrimp jigging past the mangrove roots where the groupers and big snappers lurked. For this mindless sport, none of Rusty’s casting skills or dexterity was required. It was the kind of half-assed fishing that day-tripping tourists indulged in.
Though it was beneath her abilities, Rusty was beyond caring about such things. Today it was the air they were after, the pure, hard summer light, the wayward scent of wilderness. One by one, they were going to hit all her favorite fishing holes, a stations-of-the-cross pilgrimage around the bays and flats and creeks of the upper Keys. Spots both of them had fished since they were kids.
Rusty Stabler, his lover for the last two years. The longest connection Thorn had ever managed with a woman. Longest and most solid, and now it had become by far the most painful.
He watched Rusty twitch her line, putting action in her bait. Hip cocked against the center console, eyes fixed on the water’s surface, waiting for any riffle, holding the rod with a loose readiness, reflexes alert. Like Rusty of old.
Twenty yards up the creek a trio of dolphins appeared and took their sweet, silky time rolling past. With a quiet smile, Rusty monitored their journey.
To the east, the ruddy flush of dawn crept above the horizon, and its glow seeped upward into the pearl-gray sky. A breeze passing through Joe Bay sent ripples fanning across the creek, keeping the mosquitoes off. Somewhere inside the dense web of mangroves an osprey hit its high strong notes, twelve in a row, a pause, then twelve more haunting cries as if it were making its morning devotions.
He watched as the dolphins moved into the bay, taking their magic elsewhere.
Rusty motioned at the water off the stern. “Heads up.”
Thorn turned as a fish nudged his bait. He popped the line, set the hook, and knew in half a second it was another runt. His third in five minutes.
“You’re on a tear, Thorn.”
He brought it alongside, released the small gray snapper, then fixed another shrimp to the hook. He glanced at Rusty, returned her smile, and pitched the bait close to the mangroves.
“Tide’s picking up; we should do a little better now.”
“When was fishing ever about catching fish?” she said.
Thorn was silent, watching their trailing baits.
“Oh, shit. Listen to me getting all Zen.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” he said.
As he watched, something hard and ugly shifted inside Rusty’s gut. She winced, closed her eyes, and slumped forward.
He peeled the rod from her hands and set it in a holder.
“All right, that’s enough. We’re going in.”
“And do what? Lie on my back, stare at the ceiling, and wait?”
“Rusty, you’re hurting.”
“I’m okay.” Her face was pale and she swayed as if the boat were wallowing. “I’ll sit down, take a breather. But I’m not ready to go in.”
She turned from him, edged around the console, and settled onto the casting platform. There was a dry rasp in her breathing.
He slid his rod into the holder alongside hers and came over. It was a minute before she had her breath back and looked up. Her hazel eyes were muddied by the drugs and pain but they remained unflinching.
“This was a mistake.”
“Stop it, Thorn. This is exactly right. I can’t imagine a better ending.”
She drew a breath and wiped away the shine of sweat on her neck.
“Ending?”
“You know what I mean. Right here, right now. This is perfect, exactly where I should be today, at this stage.”
She looked away, taking a moment to regain the rhythm of her breath. When she turned to him again, her eyes had cleared.
“Ease off, would you. Even if you have to fake it. Okay? It makes things tougher with you tensed up, fighting so hard.”
Thorn was silent. In the last few weeks he’d tried every upbeat phrase he knew, anything to encourage her, brighten the gloom. Then yesterday, with a fierceness she’d never directed at him before, she ordered him to stop. They were past all that bullshit. Three rounds of chemo had done nothing; the morphine wasn’t touching her pain. It was no longer a matter of if.
After her outburst, her voice had steadied and her face had assumed the calm bemusement of one who no longer dreads anything.
Now Rusty reset her Heat cap on her hairless scalp and turned her eyes toward the empty bay.
“Trout Creek,” she said. “I caught my first fish over there. I ever tell you about that?”
He nodded.
“I did?”
“A big-ass grouper. You were nine, came out alone in a plastic boat with a ten-horse Merc. The damn fish towed you for about half an hour before you wore it out. Like Santiago and his marlin. That grouper got you addicted.”
“When did I tell you that?”
“It doesn’t matter, Rusty.”
“When, damn it?”
“I don’t know, ten minutes ago. Maybe fifteen.”
“Shit.” She shook her head, frowning.
“It’s nothing. It’s okay. Everything’s fine. It’s the drugs.”
Gradually her frustration passed, and she sighed and her lips softened again, coming as close to a smile as Thorn had seen from her in weeks.
She rose and opened her arms and Thorn stepped into the embrace. She held him firmly, then eased her head back. The fit of her lips was as flawless as ever, though he could taste the acrid bite of the chemicals lacing her blood.
He pressed deeper and lost himself in the kiss, until finally Rusty drew away. She touched a finger to the stubble on his cheek, drew a slow line down his jaw, and gave him another peck before stepping back and retrieving her rod.
They returned to fishing, watched their baits, and were quiet. The air was radiant and thick with the sweet labors of summer, the swollen moon-driven tide, the scent of hidden orchids and reptiles sunning themselves on the high limbs of the mangroves. On the water’s surface, the lacy shadows of branches and leaves trembled with every breath of breeze.
For the last week the Keys had been under the spell of a confluence of celestial events that caused the bays and ocean currents to swell several feet higher than normal. Around the island, seawater was washing over the rocky beaches and heaving high against seawalls. Thorn’s own dock was three inches below the waterline. Because the moon was in perfect alignment with the earth, at perigee, its closest approach to the southern hemisphere in decades, the increased gravitational pull was tugging at anything with even the slightest water content. A reminder of the bewitching forces calling from deep space, many of them still unnamed, unmeasured, their effects not yet known.
For Thorn the link between the swollen tides and Rusty’s illness was unmistakable. Of course, the idea that earthbound matters could be controlled by invisible powers beyond our realm fueled the religious faithful, stirring them to spiritual awe and devotion to a higher power.
But not Thorn. It only jacked up his rage.
Surrendering was not in his nature, especially to forces that were nameless and intangible. For weeks as Rusty battled her illness, he’d been yearning to take something by the throat and throttle it. To go tooth and claw with Rusty’s tormentor. But there was nothing there.
He was reeling in his line, about to take a break, when something big crashed his bait. The rod jerked from his fingers, clattered across the deck, and was heading overboard when he stabbed at it and found a grip. Twenty feet of line burned off the reel. Out in the creek the buckle of water was closing on the mangrove roots when Thorn yanked it to a halt.
“I think we got your grouper,” he said. “Or one of its grandkids.”
He tightened the drag, won back some line before the fish turned again and bulled back toward its lair. Those roots were coated in barnacles with razory edges, and the slightest brush would slice the lightweight monofilament.
Thorn leaned back and horsed the fish to the right, dipping the rod tip and cranking the slack until he had the fish alongside. As he grabbed the light line and kneeled to unhook it, he caught a flash to his right and looked out in time to see a shark heading toward the helpless grouper.
Ten feet away, it would tear into the fish in seconds.
Thorn jerked the line to his mouth, bit it in two, freeing the fish. Through the clear water he watched the old warrior scoot back to the safety of the mangroves. The shark, a six-foot brown, sailed past, missing it by inches.
But then, as if the natural laws of physics didn’t apply to it, the bulky predator veered right and was on the grouper in half a second. Blood blossomed at the edge of the mangrove roots; the water boiled for a moment and was still.
“Goddamn it.”
He watched the shark thrash, inhaling the last of the grouper, then it departed. A moment later a school of glassy minnows swarmed in to mop up the final floating chunks. Seconds after that the creek was still, a freshening breeze sweeping in from the east, the incoming tide flushing away the last signs of carnage. When he turned around, she’d vanished.
“Rusty?”
He stepped around the center console and found her sprawled facedown. Her head twisted to the side, cheek mashed against the deck. Her eyes were open, milky and unseeing.
Across the creek the osprey screamed and screamed again.
 
THE MIAMI HERALD
Monday, July 19
Rachel Anne “Rusty” Stabler, At Peace on the Water
By April Moss
Rachel Anne Stabler, who was born in America’s landlocked heartland but came to cherish the watery paradise of her adopted home in the Florida Keys, died at her residence in Key Largo after a short illness. She was 46 years old.
For decades, Rusty explored the waters of the Florida Bay, the Everglades and the Gulf of Mexico, first as a youngster in her own skiff, and later as a charter fishing guide, taking anglers onto the saltwater flats or into secluded creeks and bays in search of tarpon, bonefish and other elusive prey.
Born in Starkville, Oklahoma, Rusty Stabler arrived in the Keys at the age of 6 with her single mother, June Ellen Stabler, who had come to those remote islands in search of a fresh start. Rusty completed high school at Coral Shores High in Tavernier, where she struggled with her studies. “As a sophomore she fell in with a tough crew,” said former principal Matthew Shane. “She was flunking most of her classes, then one day she walked into my office and threw down the gauntlet. She said if the high school didn’t start teaching something useful, we were going to lose her and a lot of others like her. She was lit up.”
Frustrated with the lack of response from Shane and other administrators in the school system, Rusty organized students and parents to pressure the Monroe County school board into offering an accredited course in outboard engine repair. Though on repeated occasions the board dismissed her appeals, Rusty persevered, gathering petitions and organizing her fellow students and their parents. Because boating plays such a central role in the Keys economy and its history, Rusty felt the school system was failing to prepare students for island living by neglecting a marine studies curriculum.
Her resolve paid off. In the fall of Rusty’s junior year, an outboard engine repair course was offered to students at Coral Shores for the first time. “Nobody had any idea how popular that course would be,” said retired principal Shane. “Nobody but Rusty.”
After graduation, Stabler devoted herself to building her charter fishing business into a thriving enterprise. According to Ron Marden, president of the Upper Keys Chamber of Commerce, Stabler became one of the top fishing guides in the Florida Keys. “You always got your money’s worth when you went out with Rusty. Her rig, Sunny Daze, wasn’t the slickest skiff out there, but by god, her anglers always caught fish, even when things was dead, and nobody else was getting a bite. That girl just had the gift.”
“When she started out, Rusty was the first girl guide in Islamorada, and the guys on the dock weren’t pleased,” said Captain Harry Sanders, a guide with sixty years’ experience in the Keys. “They hazed her, made her life hell. If it bothered her, she never let on. She had a quiet, modest way about her. She wasn’t some pushy women’s libber, which helped, but what finally won over the guys was the way she put her clients into fish. Day after day Rusty kicked the other guides’ butts. That gal could outfish anybody I ever run across.”
Through Rusty Stabler’s continued efforts and financial contributions, today that single course at her former high school has grown into a complete program consisting of more than two dozen classes in electronics, navigation and marine science. Attracting master mechanics and nautical engineers and university professors from around the globe, many of them Rusty Stabler’s fishing clients, Coral Shores High School has developed one of the premier marine vocational studies programs in the nation.
Rusty was spearheading a fundraising campaign that brought in $600,000, all of it designated for a new wing at her alma mater, space which will be used exclusively for the program her efforts brought to life over three decades ago.
For the last few years, Rusty had put her charter fishing business on hold while she accepted a new challenge as chairman of the board of Bates International. Based in Sarasota, Bates International, the largest family-owned agribusiness in the U.S., is the second-largest landowner in Florida, where its holdings include phosphate mines and sprawling cattle ranches in the central regions of the state. “In a very short time Rusty accomplished some amazing things,” said Jill Montrose, a longtime Bates board member. “Ms. Stabler was turning BI into one of the worldwide leaders in ecologically responsible food production. She had to fight for every inch of gain she made, but she had amazing grit and dedication.”
“Rusty was as strong-willed as anybody I’ve ever met,” said her friend Laurence Sugarman, a Key Largo security professional. “Even towards the end, when things were darkest for her, Rusty was still upbeat. She believed she’d had a magical life. Far richer than anything she ever expected. Her only regret was that in the last couple of years her work with Bates kept her off the water. That was where she was most at peace. Out in her boat.”
In accordance with her wishes, Rusty Stabler’s remains were cremated and her ashes spread at sea after a sunset celebration at the home of her husband of less than a month, Daniel Oliver Thorn.

 
Copyright © 2011 by James W. Hall

JAMES W. HALL is an Edgar and Shamus Award-winning author whose books have been translated into a dozen languages. He divides his time between South Florida and North Carolina.